James Rawlings' Blog

Initial Thoughts on Trump's Syria U-turn

April 12, 2017

At 04:40 Syrian time, on US President Donald Trump’s order, the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross fired a barrage of 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian Al-Shayrat airbase, destroying infrastructure ranging from radar installations to air defences, and resulting in the deaths of several Syrian servicemen.


This marks a radical departure from the Trump administration’s position just last week, where Nikki Haley announced in the UN that removing Assad from power was no longer a priority. [1] Everything changed with reports emerging from conflict-partisan organisations such as the “White Helmets” reporting that a chemical attack had been conducted.[2] Immediately the blame was laid on the Syrian government, while calls for an objective, non-partisan investigation were ignored. Subsequently Trump said that he had changed his position on Assad, and when asked what his response to the alleged attack would be, Trump responded with an ominous “You’ll see.”[3]


Reports began to circulate that the US was preparing a military response. Israeli sources began to say on April 6th that the US was debating the extent of a strike on Assad with Russia.[4] It was clear that the US had to be in close contact with the Russian forces operating in Syria so as to avoid a direct clash. A Pentagon spokesman stated that the Russians had been notified of the impending attack, and that the US took precautions to avoid casualties among Russian and Syrian servicemen.[5] The Russians likewise made no attempt to use their advanced missile batteries in Syria to intercept the incoming Tomahawks.[6]


The abrupt change of course of the Trump administration in its policy towards Syria is remarkable in its suddenness, especially considering that in 2013 Trump condemned any attempt by Obama to intervene in Syria after the then alleged chemical attack by the Assad government. [7] While one can speculate many reasons as to why this happened here and now, I will indulge in only two.


For the first, one needs to recognise the context that this decision was taken in. Domestically, Trump is in a difficult situation, having recently seen an attempt at replacing Obamacare go down in flames, and tooth and nail resistance from Congressional Democrats against virtually all other initiatives and appointments. Just yesterday, Senate Republicans had to invoke the “nuclear option” to break a Democratic filibuster against the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. [8] Representative Devin Nunes, an ally of Trump’s, was also removed from heading the House Intelligence Committee investigation into alleged Trump administration ties to Russia. [9] The media has been relentlessly touting atrocity after atrocity committed by the Syrian government – which, because it is backed by Russia, and Russia “backed Trump”, means that Trump is tarnished with the same brush. Additionally, Trump was recently upping the ante with China over what he perceives to be their lack of effort in reining in North Korea over their recent missile tests.[10]


In this regard, Trump may have seized the opportunity to take out three birds with one Tomahawk-laden stone. By capitalising on the media’s hysteria in the wake of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, Trump can capture the moral high ground, and flip the narrative on its head. Furthermore, the public outrage from Russia that was sure to follow would function as an incredibly effective instrument in killing the conspiracy theory that Trump is somehow in cahoots with Russia. Thirdly, it demonstrates to China that if they do not step up to what Trump considers to be a productive contribution over the North Korea issue, the US will indeed act alone. None of these reasons require the allegations of Assad being behind the chemical attack to be true – it simply functions as an opportunity to be seized for the accomplishment of other goals, both domestically and for negotiations in other areas.


However, there is also the possibility that Trump really does believe that Assad was behind the attack, and, in Rex Tillerson's words, “steps are underway” for the removal of Assad.[11] This would mark a genuinely stark turn in Trump’s foreign policy. A shake-up has already been underway in the administration, with Steven Bannon being removed from his position in the National Security Council, and instead allowing General H.R. McMaster to consolidate his hold over the NSC.[12] In the worst case what ensues is that the strike on Syria represents a complete departure from Trump’s campaign promise to focus on America first, and instead pursue a foreign policy agenda much akin to Obama’s, but with a potentially greater willingness to resort to armed force.


It is far too early to determine the precise motives underlying the Trump administration’s decision to strike Syria at this time. We know that in the past, chemical weapons have not swayed Trump in favour of military intervention in Syria. We likewise know that the strike was, at least so-far, limited in its scope, and that only one Syrian airbase was targeted, with efforts made to avoid casualties – both Russian and Syrian. This in itself indicates that the move may not have been intended to initiate a major military intervention, but rather function as a signal to score political points for leverage both domestically and in negotiations with other countries. But given the volatility within the administration, the removal of individuals such as Bannon from the NSC, and the political assassination of Michael Flynn by the US deep state, the possibility that worse things lie ahead is also present. Russia and the international community need to proceed with caution, because at the moment the waters are not only stormy, but murky.


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